Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 6;   February 10, 2016: Patterns of Conflict Escalation: Part II

Patterns of Conflict Escalation: Part II

by

When simple workplace disagreements evolve into workplace warfare, they often do so following recognizable patterns. If we can recognize the patterns early, we can intervene to prevent serious damage to relationships. Here's Part II of a catalog of some of those patterns.
U.S. Troops in Viet Nam, 1961-1968

U.S. Troops in Viet Nam, 1961-1968. The escalation pattern shown here represents only a portion of the escalation of commitment by the U.S. government to the effort in Viet Nam. Other resources included personnel and naval vessels offshore, the out-of-country supply chain, diplomatic effort, and policy development, as well as political capital. Some of these are difficult to quantify. But it is reasonable to suppose that the total commitment followed a similar "s-curve," demonstrating eventual declines in escalation rates after 1966.

Commitments to workplace conflicts likely follow similar s-curves. Interventions are more likely to be effective when escalation rates have begun to decline.

The plot is based on data in the Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1968 (89th Edition), U.S. Government Printing Office, p. 258.

In Part I of this exploration, we examined some behavioral patterns that escalate conflicts, including accusations and apologies. In this Part II, we turn our attention to patterns of thinking that lead us to make damaging errors when managing disagreements.

Sunk cost effect and sunk time effect
These two cognitive biases, and the "sacrifice trap," lead us to believe that rigidly adhering to our own positions in an ongoing disagreement is sensible [1]. The reasoning goes like this: "If I yield on this point, all my past work and sacrifices will be for naught." People who hold this belief feel that only total victory can justify the resources or time expended so far in establishing or defending their current positions. When this leads to increasing investment in the current position, this pattern is called uote{escalation of commitment.
Resolving sincere disagreements usually requires all parties to take into account at least some of the interests of the others. That often entails letting go of some of our own past commitments. People ensnared in the sunk cost effect, the sunk time effect, or the sacrifice trap have great difficulty letting go. Moreover, these lines of thinking can lead their adherents along a path of indefinite escalation.
Confirmation bias
Confirmation bias (see "Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I," Point Lookout for November 23, 2011) is a cognitive bias that causes us to seek information confirming our preconceptions, while we avoid information that might contradict them. It can also cause us to overvalue information supporting our preconceptions, and undervalue information that conflicts with them.
This bias can obviously lead to conflict escalation when a party to the conflict interprets the statements or acts of other parties in ways that raise questions about their integrity. But more important, when confirmation bias becomes an ingredient of conspiracy theories, the conflict can widen to include other people not involved in the immediate conflict. Confirmation bias thus provides a means for toxic conflict to spread through the organization, contributing to factionalism and feuds.
Attribution bias
Attribution bias Resolving sincere disagreements
usually requires all parties to
take into account at least some
of the interests of the others
is a cognitive bias that affects the way we attribute causes for someone's behavior. In conflict, it can lead us to ascribe nefarious motives to people we dislike or distrust, while ascribing only the highest motives to ourselves or to people we like or trust. Even when the disfavored person behaves admirably or fairly, attribution bias can lead us to attribute that behavior to strategic deception, which justifies rejecting any constructive overtures by other parties to the conflict, rendering toxicity of the conflict inevitable, and making the toxicity more durable and intense.
Once one of the parties to a conflict begins ascribing negative motives to other parties to the conflict, conflict escalation is likely well underway. Delaying intervention until one is certain that things have turned sour is extremely risky.

These patterns are merely representative. There are more. I hope you're curious enough to explore further. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Conversation Despots  Next Issue

[1]
For more about the sacrifice trap, see Kenneth E. Boulding, Three Faces of Power, SAGE Publications, Inc., 1990, p. 63. Order from Amazon.com

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Workplace discussions sometimes take the form of informal debate, in which parties who initially have different perspectives try to arrive at a shared perspective. Meta-debate is one way things can go wrong.

See also Conflict Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

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